Free speech and open public discourse are among our most cherished American values and are essential to a healthy democracy. However, these values are currently under attack as more and more Americans are being censored online, particularly those sharing political or religious perspectives.
Over the last few years, social media has become the new public square for discourse and engagement. While this development initially presented an opportunity for the open exchange of ideas, it now poses a threat to freedom of speech by enabling unaccountable billionaires and multinational corporations with unchecked power to censor, distort and outright ban ideas and people they disagree with.
Individuals across party lines have raised concerns regarding inconsistencies in censorship practices. Last year, U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign advertising account was suspended by Google following her statements during the Democratic debate in June of 2019.
While unable to meet in person due to COVID-19, an evangelical church in Idaho streamed Bible lessons and sermons through their app. Google suspended and removed the app after deeming its content insensitive.
Most recently, in January 2021, sitting president Donald J. Trump was removed from Twitter. Various other social media platforms soon followed suit and restricted the president from engaging on their networks.
Additionally, attempts to create new platforms with less censorship have been blocked or banned.
These aren’t the only examples. Time after time, we are seeing individuals and organizations censored online.
The Utah Senate sees the dangers of these practices within Big Tech and is taking action during the 2021 General Session. S.B. 228 Electronic Free Speech Amendments increases transparency within social media censorship practices and protects users from unequal suppression.
With this bill, social media organizations will need to notify users anytime their content is censored. Once notified, users can appeal the moderation and provide evidence in opposition to the censorship. If the appeal is rejected, users can submit a second appeal to an independent review board. In addition, S.B. 228 will guarantee increased transparency for Utahns by requiring social media organizations to annually release a complete list of moderation practices, allowing individuals to make informed decisions and holding organizations accountable for unfair practices. This process will protect Utahns’ rights to openly engage with others on equal terms.
Utah is not the only state worried about censorship and Big Tech. Over a dozen other U.S. states are also working on related legislation. Similarly, countries across the globe are finding solutions to this growing issue. Poland is now banning social media ideological censorship with fines up to $13.5 million and Mexico introduced a new law intended to protect free speech. This trend will only continue.
Though companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are privately owned, these tech giants have created a monopoly and a successful digital public square. Although the Utah Legislature is against burdensome government regulations, increasing transparency within social media corporations has become essential to protecting the rights of citizens and preventing discriminatory policies.
For decades, America was the champion of free speech worldwide. Now, our own social media giants are one of its greatest threats. With the United States government failing to act, states must assume the duty to defend free speech and the values our country was founded on.
S.B. 228 Electronic Free Speech Amendments passed the Senate and is now being considered in the House.
Sen. J. Stuart Adams is president of the Utah State Senate. Sen. Mike McKell is the sponsor of S.B. 228.